There were many heroes in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, but novelist, essayist and social critic James Baldwin became the movement's leading literary voice. Uniquely perceptive and brutally honest regarding all aspects of racism and race relations in America, Baldwin became a cultural icon not only through his brilliant writing but also his speeches and frequent appearances on television.
In 1979, at age 55, Baldwin reluctantly decided to write a major work called
Remember This House that would examine the lives and deaths of his close friends and fellow activists Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Each was murdered between 1963 and 1968, reshaping the civil rights movement and profoundly affecting Baldwin's life and art. "I want these three lives to bang against each other and reveal each other as, in truth, they did," Baldwin wrote of his prospective work. Upon his death in 1987, the author had written only 30 pages of Remember this House.
Working with Baldwin's estate, Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck sought to "finish" that book through an examination of Baldwin's writings and public presentations, along with a strong emphasis on the content of those 30 pages. The result is Peck's I Am Not Your Negro, a strikingly original film and an Oscar nominee for Best Documentary Feature at this month's 89th Academy Awards.
The film fulfills the director's stated mission of imagining a more complete version of Remember this House than Baldwin left behind, but that is only the beginning. Peck focuses his film on connecting the dots between the 1960s civil rights movement and the Black Lives Matter movement of today, using the lessons of history and the extraordinary richness of Baldwin's words to illuminate the continuing struggle for social justice in America.
Though Baldwin supplies all the writing for the film through its extensive use of voiceover narration, I Am Not Your Negro feels like a collaboration between Baldwin and Peck. It delivers a freewheeling, kaleidoscopic rush of images and sounds, mixing archival news footage with carefully chosen material from film, television and advertising to unpack cultural stereotypes and reveal unseen connections across the decades. Surprising juxtapositions of seemingly disparate material is central to the film's power.
The soundtrack makes similar use of era-spanning music from the early blues of Big Bill Broonzy to the contemporary hip-hop of Kendrick Lamar. In its structure and methods alone, Peck's film is a daring and innovative work.
Tying all of this together is none other than Samuel L. Jackson, who effectively appears as Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro through his constant presence as narrator. It's hard to recognize Jackson's familiar voice as he immerses himself in the delicate task of extracting all the meaning from Baldwin's prose. It's the actor's most inspired and passionate performance in years.
For all its sometimes-shocking insights, I Am Not Your Negro delivers an unforgettable portrait of Baldwin's singular genius. His world-weary countenance speaking volumes about racism 30 years after his death, Baldwin's plea remains one for honest self-examination and personal responsibility as regards race relations in America. It's hard to imagine a timelier message or a more convincing messenger.